By Marisa Torrieri, Contributing Editor, RFIDOperations
This article originally appeared in a 2005 issue of RFID Operations.
GOSHEN, Ind.—Think it’ll take a six-figure loan for you or the small businesses you work with to start using radio frequency identification technology?
You won’t if you follow the example set by Rollpak Corp. The mom-and-pop manufacturer of industrial trash can liners, which employs only 80 workers, and only three dedicated IT staffers, did it for only $5,900. Furthermore, installing the RFID system took fewer than 40 hours of dedicated work.
And now Alan Wyne, the man in charge of the home RFID installation, is running the conference circuit, trying to convince less brave small companies to upgrade their technology. Rollpak, which manufactures more than 4,000 different bags, holding everything from hotel ice to a hospital’s hazardous waste, just finished the first phase of its RFID pilot. The goal it accomplished: installing, testing and refining RFID technology by testing it against a tracking system that already worked—albeit, more slowly—across its 120,000-square-foot plant.
“There’s this fear that pilots cost $100,000,” says Wyne, the chief information officer for Rollpak. “Small businesses look at this and say, ‘no way.’ That’s the first intimidation factor: the sheer number of dollars the public is saying it costs.”
First, Wyne bought two RFID readers (ALR 9780 model) readers from Alien Technology (Wyne notes that he also took a course on installing RFID offered by Alien, for helpful tips). He also purchased four linear antennas. Finally, he wrote software to pull the tag information from the reader to display information onto the company’s server as soon as it was picked up. The final goal of Phase 1, says Wyne, was learning how the readers look at tags, and how to get good read rates.
After the setup, Wyne tested readers and tags against an already successful inventory process: at Rollpak’s headquarters, the bags are put onto rolls. Then, they are put into bins, which hold 500 to 1,000 rolls, which are boxed. A robotic arm then places 70 to 100 boxes onto a pallet.
After installing the RFID system, Wyne focused on three physical areas of the factory in order to measure results: the product manufacturing area, the packing area, and the holding area.
Since Rollpak already used a reliable system to track the movement of products, it was easy to double check the newly installed RFID system. The test would prove successful if the main computer system showed “that a bin was in spot three,” and the manual system also indicated “that the bin was in spot three.”
Before giving the thumbs up to a successful phase, Wyne spent about a half an hour per reader, changing its location and orientation, putting it near metal and under objects. This was to ensure that tags could get a solid read in realistic conditions, he said.
Now, Wyne is bringing Rollpak’s staff up to speed on the technology, and is in the midst of Phase 2 of the RFID deployment. In the second phase, Rollpak will work with three vendors to test the movement of product in a limited, supply chain scenario. The partners, which supply the cardboard boxes for Rollpak trash can liners, will attach a tag to each pallet sent to Rollpak (more than 2,000 tags). Wyne will then test whether he can use RFID to keep track of the location and movement of those pallets from a designated loading dock, through the entire facility.
Each vendor will put a tag on each pallet, and when it arrives, someone will manually transcribe the information on the pallet, as usual. Meanwhile, the RFID reader will also read the information. Wyne will compare results, possibly tweaking the software’s specifications until the reader picks up every single box-containing pallet. To start, Wyne has set up one reader and four antennas (all Gen 1, 915 MHz and EPC compliant) at one of Rollpak’s receiving docks. Using four antennas ensures the reader picks up the tag no matter where it is placed on the pallet.
For Phase 3, Wyne says he hopes to include Rollpak’s customers in the mix, many of whom spend hours receiving products, reading and then manually transcribing information.
Despite Rollpak’s success, not all RFID folks are embracing the do-it-yourself method, says Carl Brown, consultant and president of Simply RFID, which works to get RFID technology up and running in small and large business. When you consider that you must dedicate at least one employee to get RFID up and running, you may not have such a huge cost savings after all, Brown says.
“It’s a cost to your time,” cautions Brown. “If your IT guy is able to do it, that’s great.”
If not, Brown’s company offers a different solution: telling companies install and deploy RFID as cost-efficiently as possible, and then getting it up and running.
Although Wyne says he isn’t sure how long each upcoming phase will take, it is a lot speedier than if he were outsourcing his RF needs.
“You don’t have to spend the next eight months to figure this out,” Wyne says. “We’re taking small steps.”